Vatican warns of ethical risks with gene progress

Vatican City - A Vatican official warned on Tuesday that advances in genetic testing were creating a slow but "relentless" spread of a eugenics mentality - the effort to improve the quality of the human race by controlling heredity.

Monsignor Rino Fisichella made the warning as he outlined the scope of an upcoming Vatican conference, "The New Frontiers of Genetics and the Risk of Eugenics," which starts Friday.

Fisichella acknowledged that the term eugenics harks back to the past, when most famously the Nazis used eugenic theories to justify forced sterilization and other practices in their quest to establish a master race.

"The term 'eugenics' seems to have been relegated to the past, and just saying its name strikes horror," Fisichella told a news conference. But he said the same mentality is growing - "slowly but relentlessly" - albeit under different names and hidden by slick publicity campaigns by well-funded biomedical interests.

"While it would seem that there is no place for it in our democratic societies that respect the principle of the human person, eugenics ... is nevertheless reappearing in practice in good conscience," he said.

The Vatican has, for example, opposed pre-implantation genetic diagnosis on embryos to screen for hereditary illnesses because it often results in the destruction of embryos. The Vatican holds that life begins at conception.

In the screening, known by its abbreviation PGD, a single cell from an embryo created for in-vitro fertilization is tested before being implanted in the womb for genetic conditions and diseases, such as Down Syndrome, sickle-cell anemia and cystic fibrosis.

Proponents of the process say it can spare families the tragedy of passing on hereditary diseases to their children. But many countries ban it or restrict it to prevention of serious inherited diseases, in part to prevent it from being used to screen on the basis of gender alone.

Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said the scope of the academy's two-day conference, which concludes with an audience with Pope Benedict XVI, would verify if within the realm of genetic experimentation there are actions that constitute de facto eugenics.

Fisichella acknowledged that medical advances derived from the Human Genome Project, which mapped the approximately 25,000 human genes in 2003, offered "concrete possibilities" for avoiding hereditary genetic illnesses.

But he warned that many technologies were being carried out with the promise of offering a normal life to people, when no one can claim to define what a normal life really is.

"This mentality ... tends to consider that there are people who have less value than others," he said, be it because they are less educated, or are disabled, mentally ill or in vegetative states.